Generative AI & the Evolution of Academic Librarianship

During my first week as an academic librarian, many faculty discussions on campus were regarding the issue of generative AI software, such as ChatGPT. A majority of the faculty at a panel discussion held on campus about AI expressed concerns over plagiarism, copyright, academic integrity, etc. Those on the panel, however, commented on how beneficial using AI was. When asked more specifically on what faculty should do to combat potential cheating from using generative AI, the panel seemed in agreeance on an answer: educate your students on how to responsibly use AI.

I will admit; prior to starting my career as an academic librarian, I had never used generative AI. Of course, I saw generative AI blasted all over the news and saw updates on sites and apps like Snapchat, but I never understood what generative AI was. I did not have any interest in learning about it either. After attending the panel discussion, however, I was reminded of a book I read called Who Moved My Cheese? by Dr. Spencer Johnson. I was assigned to read Who Moved My Cheese? by a professor in graduate school and often refer back to it (I highly recommend reading it if you have not already done so). The book explains how change can happen unexpectedly, and when it does, it is better to adapt and move forward than be left behind. Feeling like I was being left behind while other faculty embraced generative AI, I decided to learn as much as I could about it.

Although I read numerous articles and watched hours of YouTube videos, I was still confused as to how generative AI worked. Near the end of August, my dean notified the library faculty of a course offered through ALA’s eLearning platform. The course was titled Exploring AI with Critical Information Literacy and taught by Sarah Morris. I enrolled in the course and learned about the development and usage of generative AI and machine learning, current discussions around AI, opportunities and challenges for AI usage in higher education, and how to engage AI as an academic librarian. Throughout the course, we examined AI through a critical lens and discussed strategies for AI to be incorporated at our own institutions. I enjoyed the course and found the lesson on prompt engineering to be the most intriguing.

One of the ways in which academic librarians can enter the generative AI realm in higher education is through teaching faculty and students prompt engineering. Prompt engineering is strategizing your generative AI input to obtain your desired output. While one can simply ask ChatGPT a standard question, prompt engineering recommends telling ChatGPT through what lens to answer the question. For example, if I was wondering how to craft a lesson for my class on implicit bias, I could plainly input:

“What lesson on implicit bias could I give my college class?”

Using prompt engineering, a better input would be:

“Act like an Academic Librarian teaching a college course on critical thinking. Design a lesson about implicit bias. Include topics for the class to discuss in small groups.”

While the results appeared similar, the detailed prompt elicited a result more applicable to my course by covering topics such as bias in information sources and media literacy.

Another way academic librarians can educate faculty and students on generative AI is on responsible use. More specifically, we can create lessons and workshops around copyright, academic integrity, and the reliability of the output. I tried this with my critical thinking class. I first introduced the university’s academic integrity policy, including definitions of cheating and plagiarism. Because the majority of my class was unfamiliar with generative AI, I briefly explained how generative AI worked. Afterwards, I had the students discuss the potential benefits and challenges of using generative AI. Using my personal account (my university does not support the use of ChatGPT), I asked ChatGPT and had the students read the output. I stressed that when used responsibly, ChatGPT can be a great resource for brainstorming; however, I cautioned my students from using it for writing assignments due to plagiarism, copyright infringement, and incorrect information. To illustrate this point further, I informed my students of the two attorneys in New York who acquired case law through ChatGPT. The attorneys did not fact-check the case law, and the judge discovered that the case law actually did not exist. The cases ChatGPT cited were made up. Overall, the lesson was a success. Many students chose to explore generative AI in more depth for the final projects.

By embracing generative AI, academic librarians can increase their skillset and become a useful resource for faculty and students navigating the rapidly evolving world of AI. It will be interesting to learn about how varying universities respond, if they have not done so already. I imagine we will see new policies implemented on campus, positions established, and roles altered.

Experiencing the Shift

I spent a few days last week at a fascinating conference called MobilityShifts held at The New School in NYC (full disclosure: I was also a presenter). The tagline for the conference is An International Future of Learning Summit, which I definitely found true: attendees from all over the world ranged from faculty and administrators to publishers, students, activists, and librarians, and were interested in education at all levels. It would be impossible for me to do justice to all of the great talks and panels I experienced at the conference, but here are some notes on a few that piqued my interest that seemed especially relevant to academic librarians.

John Willinsky (founder of the Public Knowledge Project which created Open Journal Systems for publishing open access journals) gave a wonderful talk about open access publishing. He made the distinction between two kinds of intellectual property: content produced by scholars and researchers, and content produced by commercial and entertainment entities (with frequent use of Lady Gaga as an example of the latter). Willinsky asked us to consider why copyright for these two types of intellectual property is treated identically. He suggested that there is a strong historical and legal basis for open access in scholarly journals: information produced by universities is a public good, as demonstrated by the tax-exempt status of academic institutions. Further, the information that researchers produce only increases in value when it circulates and is critically reviewed, and open access increases the circulation of scholarly information. With Open Access Week practically around the corner, I’m looking forward to sharing what I learned at Willinsky’s talk during the faculty workshops we’re planning at my library.

I was very pleased to have the opportunity to hear Michael Wesch speak — I’ve been a big fan since seeing the video he made in 2007 with his undergraduate anthropology students at Kansas State University, A Vision of Students Today. Wesch focused his talk on student engagement, beginning by juxtaposing a photo of 400 bored-looking students in a lecture course with one of excited young people at auditions for American Idol. College students are seeking ways to create their own identities and find recognition, which the mainstream media are all too happy to provide. He noted that in the past media critics like Neil Postman criticized television for being a one-way medium, but now we have the ability to both create content and to talk back — it’s no longer just a top-down information stream. Wesch suggested that we encourage students to ask questions and talk back (both critical aspects of information literacy), and show them that these actions are relevant to creating their own identity and making meaning in their lives.

Like most conferences, the overwhelming majority of the speakers were faculty, administrators, and other professionals — that is, adults. So I was delighted to have the opportunity to attend a panel titled Open Education: A Student Perspective, and listen to the voices of four articulate students from The New School. Open access publishing was one dominant theme in this session. One student spoke passionately about the frustration that accompanied his inability to access scholarly information in databases when he had taken time off from his studies. Another wondered about the oxymoron of students who depend on piracy and copyright infringement to get materials that they need (or want), at the same time as the university has to take steps against it. The high prices charged by textbook publishers were also questioned, especially for materials for K-12 education. These students were an interesting counterpoint to the students Wesch discussed; they’re highly engaged in their own education, and curious about why educational policies and practices so often default to closed when arguably one of the purposes of higher education is to open and broaden knowledge and worldview.

The conference also featured “short talks,” 10 minute presentations grouped by theme. Among the many I heard, one from Xtine Burrough, Communication professor at Cal State Fullerton, stands out as particularly information literacy-friendly. She asks her students to remix and respond to the copyright infringement case Lenz v. Universal. In 2008 Stephanie Lenz was served with a takedown notice by Universal for posting a video to YouTube in which her then-toddler is shown dancing to a brief snippet of the Prince song “Let’s Go Crazy,” and decided to fight back (she’s being represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation). Burrough’s students create videos using the same 29 seconds of the song and upload them to YouTube as a response to Lenz’s original post. And of course even this assignment has gone viral, and there are many video responses from people who aren’t students in Burrough’s classes.

There are so many moving parts to the education ecosystem that it’s easy to stick to just the topics we know best or spend the most time thinking about. This was the first non-library conference I’ve been to in ages, and it was fascinating to step outside of my library bubble and listen to/learn from the other presenters and attendees. It’s going to take a while for me to digest everything I’ve taken in over the past few days, but I’m finding myself with lots to think on about the place of libraries in education.